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I wonder what it would be like to experience mental illness

I often wonder what it would be like to experience mental illness.

I, like most people, have known a few people who suffer from such an illness. There’s a good chance that among your friends and relatives there is at least one whose life is determined in part by their ongoing struggle with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, some kind of mood disorder or any of the countless other variants of mental illness that affect a substantial portion of the population.

I often wonder what it would be like, because I haven’t experienced it. I enjoy a rare quality of mental robustness that would likely be the envy of many less fortunate than I, were I callous enough to tell them about it. I’m just not prone to emotional weakness. Of course I have good days and bad days, good moods and bad moods, but really that’s the extent of it. In the main, I sail on an even keel.

All the more surprising, really, when you consider the circumstances. About twenty years ago I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. It’s a form of blood cancer with a high attrition rate, and its treatment is particularly savage. Rounds of potent chemotherapy that destroyed my immune system so thoroughly I spent six months in a sterile room behind two layers of clear plastic curtain. Total hair loss, physical wasting, mouth abscesses, daily vomiting, frequent bleeding and constant extreme pain, not to mention the shock of isolation, the maddening loneliness and fear and the bleak unfairness of spontaneous illness. My peers were learning to drive, discovering sex, partying all night and just living their lives with the carefree abandon unique to late teens; I was being fed through a tube sewn into my chest and dosed with as much morphine as I could survive to keep the worst of the agony at bay.

My first experience of mental illness was when I began a relationship with a girl who was later diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder and schizophrenic tendencies.

It’s a good thing that throughout this, my spiritual strength never let me down. I feel sure that someone of a more fragile mental constitution would have sustained lasting damage to their psyche.

If not from that, then they certainly would have found it hard to take my mother’s subsequent illness. She was diagnosed with breast cancer not long after I went into remission. Her ordeal was worse than mine. She suffered more. She didn’t survive. I suspect that seeing her slip into a coma, then a few days later take her last breath, after two years of pain and sadness and indignity, might have broken someone with a weaker backbone than mine.

Not me, though. My first experience of mental illness was when I began a relationship with a girl who was later diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder and schizophrenic tendencies. Over time I gave up working and became her carer, and ultimately spent half a decade looking after her. As her condition worsened our quality of life deteriorated, and we often went without food for lack of sufficient income. Sometimes she would suffer bouts of mania and blow what little money we had, leaving us in rent arrears or worse. Her illness gradually transformed her into a spiteful, duplicitous, selfish and hostile woman; all I could do was witness her spiral into self-hatred, and try to sustain the abuse she dealt me as a result. Our relationship and our lives finally disintegrated to the point I had to make the decision to leave her, upon which she locked me out of our apartment and called the police.

My life was back on track and going smoothly when, three years ago and newly-married, I had an aortic aneurysm and dissection.

I can’t say how a person with less emotional stamina might have dealt with sudden homelessness, or how they would have coped with caring for a seriously troubled partner, but I gritted my teeth, knuckled down and powered through it.

My life was back on track and going smoothly when, three years ago and newly-married, I had an aortic aneurysm and dissection. I was very fortunate to survive it with only a month in hospital and ongoing hypertension, considering it kills most people instantly, and those who live usually require heart valve replacements or other life-altering medical interventions. If anything, the residual addiction to prescription opiates was harder for me to overcome, and were I not so strong-willed, I do believe I might have suffered some kind of lasting psychological injury. But it’s me we’re talking about, so I got over it and rushed back to work as soon as I could.

I feel blessed that I can look back on all of these events knowing I possess the cognitive fortitude to weather even the worst of them. Had there been throughout a systemic medical and cultural effort to minimise the effect that any of these traumatic events had on my emotional state, I’m confident I would have dismissed it out of hand, with the recommendation it be better spent on someone who really needed it.

This is why I often wonder what it would be like to experience mental illness. The actual medical efforts to manage my psychological health have been token at best, and apart from my family and closest friends, the idea that I could have experienced trauma has been met mostly with indifference, and often with hostility.

With this in mind, I do worry that if someone were, for instance, to endure regular bouts of depression but repressed them so they manifested as anhedonia and compulsive behaviours, or if for example they routinely abused painkillers but had rationalised it as self-treatment, or if they had become so morbidly obsessed that they constantly fantasised about their own death and the deaths of their loved ones to the extent that those fantasies had become a form of self-harm, their only way of experiencing emotions other than the background of permanent stress and anxiety – I worry that such a person not in possession of my extraordinary toughness might have to spend their life plastering a grin over a knot of unresolved confusion, fear and pain, and might even believe that they ought not seek help, but instead summon as much strength as they can muster and try to get through it on their own, without ever dealing with the real effects of what happened to them.

Because that would be a shame.

Please donate as much as you can to mental health charities that help save lives everyday:

The Samaritans, MIND and, in the US, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Painting- Le Déséspéré by Gustave Courbet.

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